Probably the first lesson to be learned from Raymond Williams’ massive corpus of writings that established the foundation for contemporary cultural studies is the habit of problematizing (i.e., historicizing) concepts, ideas, theories, forms–all of consciousness, social life, reality itself. Consider then this standard academic definition of “culture” given by mainstream sociologist Alex Inkeles: “the grand total of all the objects, ideas, knowledge, ways of doing things, habits, values, and attitudes which each generation in a society passes on to the next” (1964: 66). Immediately we need to dis-integrate this “grand total” and put it into motion, analyze (in the sense of discriminate), relations and nuances, and connect the elements to various layered wholes. In the process, by linking our own situation to what we are doing, we problematize both object and subject.
I think the best way to illustrate Williams’ dialectical–a word he studiously avoids because of its baggage of connotations-approach to cultural criticism is his project of historical semantics, Keywords.
Originally appended to his first major work, Culture and Society (1958), Keywords was published in 1976 and revised in 1983. It is basically a historical method of investigation and a way of organizing an argument.1 Words, for Williams, were condensed social practices, repositories of knowledge and insights, and (in a way reminiscent of Voloshinov/Bakhtin’s dialogic linguistics) sites of historical struggles. Williams of course did not believe that real conflicts of power can be solved by quarreling over words, or over “the extra edge of consciousness” gained from clarifying the terminology of debate. But placed in the perspective of Wiliams’ theory of the stratification of discourse into dominant, emergent, and oppositional tendencies (more on this later), it can certainly contribute to a heightened consciousness of actual conflicts. Such a consciousness is needed to implement an emancipatory pedagogical program and operationalize the institutions of popular democracy.
The entry on “Culture” in Keywords begins with common-sense multiple meanings of the word, followed by a historical account of its usages. The early usages derived from the Latin matrix: it was a noun of process of tending crops or animals, husbandry, which in the 17th century was metaphorically extended to the tending of minds. From the 18th century on, however, the term acquired a definite class association, though the more precise terms used were “cultivation” and “cultivated.” From meaning “a general state or habit of the mind,” the term began to expand to include: “general state of intellectual development, in a society as a whole”; “the general body of the arts,” and finally “a whole way of life, material, intellectual and spiritual.”
Williams traces its parallel evolution in German where its reference is to a secular process of human development, the unilinear self-development of humanity (civilization). Civilization denoted the sense of inclusion within a civil society (civis, civitas) of refinement and order contrasted to barbarism; it gestured to an achieved state of development implying historical process and progress. This idea of Enlightenment rationality was later criticized by Herder as arrogant “Eurocentrism.” Hence, instead of the orthodox “civilization,” the term “cultures” (in the plural) of specific, organic, and variable cultures of different nations and periods (and of social and economic groups within nations) should be used. During the Romantic movement, the word was used to emphasize national and traditional cultures (folk culture) as against mechanical, rationally abstract, industrial civilization. Culture then referred to human or spiritual development versus material “civilization.” But since the 1840s, anthropology equated culture with civilization, as in Tylor’s Primitive Culture (1870). In modern archaelogy and cultural anthropology, “culture” is used to designate material production while in cultural studies and history, “culture” refers primarily to signifying or symbolic systems.
Williams distinguishes three broad active categories of usage: 1) the independent and abstract noun for a general process of intellectual, spiritual, and aesthetic development, 2) the independent noun indicating a particular way of life (people, period, group, humanity, and 3) abstract noun of “inner process” which describes works and practices of intellectual and artistic activity. The last sense in widespread use to refer to music, painting, literature, theater, and film is a transfer of the first usage to works and agencies that represent or sustain it. While Williams agrees that we need to clarify the conceptual usage within a discipine (as in anthropology), he is in principle against setting up a norm of correct or proper or scientific usage vis-a-vis confused or loose ones because “it is the range and overlap of meanings that is significant. The complex of senses indicates a complex argument about the relations between general human development and a particular way of life, and between both and the works and practices of art and intelligence” (1983: 91). What needs clarification is the relation between material and symbolic production in culture. We cannot resolve questions of relations by reducing the complexity of actual usages.2 Ultimately the provocative crux lies not in the word but in the problems that the variations indicate, the different intellectual positions and alternative views about activities, relationships, and processes. The hostility to the word “Culture” as a claim to superior knowledge or refinement–the distinction between high culture and popular entertainment, according to Williams– “records a real social history and a very difficult and confused phase of social and cultural development.”
The structure of Williams’ book, Culture and Society (1958), mobilizes the historical and problematizing method of Keywords (1976). The emergence of “culture” as a response to the crisis of traditional society during the Industrial Revolution frames Williams’ account of the usages of the concept. The changes of reference and meaning of “culture” involve the responses to the major historical changes in industry, democracy, class, and art–changes in social, economic, and political life at the time of the French and American revolutions, and the Industrial Revolution in England. In this cognitive mapping of those changes and responses, sources and effects (through a survey of pivotal writers from the 18th to the 20th century), Williams notes the historical emergence and development of “culture” as a fusion of two general responses:
first, the recognition of the practical separation of certain moral and intellectual activities from the driven impetus of a new kind of society; second, the emphasis of these activities, as a court of human appeal, to be set over the processes of practical social judgment and yet to offer itself as a mitigating and rallying alternative….For the recognition of a separate body of moral and intellectual activities, and the offering of a court of human appeal, which comprise the early meanings of the word, are joined, and in themselves changed, by the growing assertion of a whole way of life, not only as a scale of integrity, but as a mode of interpreting all our common experience, and, in this new interpretation, changing it. (1958: xviii)
For Williams then, culture is taken not in the special sense of art or intellectual refinement but as a process or structure of living, a paradigm for understanding why, in the uses of selected writers from the Romantic to the Victorian and Modern period, culture is contraposed against industrialization and against democracy. Note the accent on “common experience” and also on the need for change via interpretation and/or communication. Instead of rehearsing the critique of specific positions, I would simply emphasize two points: first, the vision of what “society” as a potential organization of culture (not just the known but also the knowable values) might be, functions as Williams’ underlying principle of critique; and second, Williams emphasizes the fact that the English working-class, because of its position in the political hierarchy, has produced not “high culture” in the narrow individualistic sense but “the collective democratic institution, whether in the trade union, the co-operative movement, or a political party” (1979: 315).
When Williams returns to this historical-semantic inquiry into culture in Marxism and Literature (1977), he perceives the difficulties in defining culture–arts, system of meanings and values, or whole way of life–as based on its historical contamination with two other fields of knowledge. Its comprehension is predicated on its uncertain relation to the two central terms in critical discourse: “society” (bourgeois society contraposed to individual) and economy (now naturalized as the “free market”). Williams reviews how the 18th century concept of culture as civilization, secular and developmental, was criticized by two trends: the Romantic and the socialist. Thinkers like Rousseau rejected “civilization” as artificial and external, deploying instead “culture” as a process of inner or spiritual development involved with human needs and impulses. Divorced then from the abstract notion of civilization/society, culture becomes identified with religion, art, the family, and personal life; culture, that is, as a general classification of the arts, religion, the institutions, and practices of meanings and values. The social/society becomes opposed to culture as “inner life,” subjectivity, the imagination, and finally the individual. Culture emerges as the secularization and liberalization of earlier metaphysical forms: imagination, creativity, inspiration, the aesthetic, myth (Williams 1977). In the 19th century, the senses of culture and civilization as “received states rather than continuing processes” again fused as they were confronted with their threatening opposites: materialism, commercialism, democracy, socialism.
Whatever the more subtle nuances between them, the concepts of civilization and culture give us the modern idea that humans possess the capacity to understand and also build a human social order. With Vico and Herder, the motive force for humans making their own history is not just abstract reason (and its achieved state in European civilization) but a more general interactive, complex, simultaneous processes of making/shaping human societies and minds. The comparative and pluralistic sense of culture originates from this accent on “a fundamental social process which shapes specific and distinct ‘ways of life'” (1977: 17). The question of why, in certain periods, cultural theorists focus on the arts and intellectual life in relation to society and not on the social process which creates specific and different ways of life, is discussed by Williams in his major work following Culture and Society.
In The Long Revolution (1961), Williams elaborates on the differentiated totality of cultural practices in a determinate social formation. He discriminates three categories implicated in defining culture: first, the ideal one: culture as a state or process of human perfection based on absolute or universal values; and second, the documentary one: culture as the body of intellectual and imaginative work recording varied human thought and experience. Here cultural criticism becomes the activity of clarifying and evaluating the language, form, and convention of particular works in relation to particular traditions and societies. The third is the social category: culture as description of a particular way of life expressing certain meanings and values not only in art and learning but also in institutions and forms of ordinary behavior, often treating works and behavior as “passive reflection” of real interests in society. This mode of analysis involves the clarification of meanings and values via a historical criticism of works, their traditions and social contexts. Moreover, it includes analysis of elements not covered in the two previous categories: the organization of production, the structure of the family, the characteristic forms through which members of the society communicate (1961: 42). While this approach includes an “ideal” and “documentary” emphasis, its aim is to study “their modes of change to discover certain general ‘laws’ or ‘trends,’ by which social and cultural development as a whole can be better understood” (1961: 42).
Williams does not deny that there is a universal human culture that contributes “radically to the growth of man’s powers to enrich his life, to regulate his society, and to control his environment,” but such general culture becomes active only within particular societies and their local and temporary systems. He rejects the ideal, documentary, and social definitions as unable to encompass the variations of meaning and reference, the genuine complexity of real particular elements in experience. Art cannot be studied in isolation from “a specious whole” called society; it is an activity, like production, trading, politics, and raising of families, all of which constitute the nature of the whole organization called “society.” What we should study, Williams insists, are “all the activities and their interrelations, without any concession of priority to any one of them that we may choose to abstract” (1961: 45). Interrelations, changing organization, elements of persistence, adjustment, unconscious assimilation, active resistance, alternative effort, particular forms of the whole organization–these are the historical phenomena Williams wants us to attend to.
Anticipating Stuart Hall’s theory of articulation, Williams’ approach may be described as dialectical inasmuch as it endeavors to mediate the polarities of process and system, agency and structure, consciousness and environment (natural and built). Williams privileges not each element as a precipitate in a general organization but the”living experience of the time” when every element was in solution, dissolved into the complex whole:
I would then define the theory of culture as the study of relationships between elements in a whole way of life. The analysis of culture is the attempt to discover the nature of the organization which is the complex of these relationships. Analysis of particular works or institutions is, in this context, analysis of their essential kind of organization, the relationships which works or institutions embody as parts of the organization as a whole. A key-word, in such analysis, is pattern: it is with the discovery of patterns of a characteristic kind that any useful cultural analysis begins, and it is with the relationships between these patterns, which sometimes reveal unexpected identities and correspondences in hitherto separately considered activities, sometimes again reveal discontinuities of an unexpect kind, that general cultural analysis is concerned (1961: 46-47)
In a “thick” survey of the 1840 milieu in England, Williams illustrates the difficulty of achieving the target of his particular project: to get hold of “the felt sense of the quality of life at a particular time and place: a sense of the ways in which the particular activities combined into a way of thinking and living.” This is not a social character or pattern, but rather “the actual experience through which these were lived,” “the actual life that the whole organization is there to express.”
To capture the variable range or modalities of life forms, Williams introduces the nexus of ideas labeled “structure of feeling” to characterize the cultural temper of a period, the “particular living result of all the elements in the general organization.” What is of primary significance here is the community of “creative response” to the changes going on in lived experience, a dynamic public sphere that makes communication possible. To further refine his theory, Williams introduces three levels of cultural phenomena: lived culture of a particular time and place, recorded culture (from art to everyday facts), and culture of the selective tradition. The last level involves the modes of interpretation and reception largely affected by the development of society, the process of historical change, the lines of growth. What cultural analysis is obligated to do is to elucidate tradition as a selection and interpretation, not simply to return a work to its historical period but, more importantly, “to make the interpretation conscious, by showing historical alternatives; to relate the interpretation to the particular contemporary values on which it rests; and, by exploring the real patterns of the work, confront us with the real nature of the choices we are making” (1961: 53). Both the documentary and social analysis will be mobilized in unfolding “real cultural processes” to lead not to a general metaphysical apprehension of “human perfection” in attaining fixed values, but an understanding of “man’s general evolution.” In this concrete trajectory we find the ethical and political motivation of Williams’ agenda for cultural analysis and critique.
Before moving to Williams’ stance on the problem of base/superstructure in Marxist theory, I want to cite two relevant points. Although still adhering to a unilinear idea of secular development, classical Marxism (according to Williams) decisively modified the Enlightenment notion of civilization by specifying it as “bourgeois society” produced by the capitalist mode of production, not a universal form of organization, and yielding not only wealth and refinement but also poverty, exploitation, and degradation. More crucial, it repudiated “idealist historiography.” It inaugurated and refined a constitutive, material history that foregrounded labor as the mediation between nature and society, industry “as the open book of the human faculties,” humans making himself/history (following Vico) by making his own means of life. Williams contends that “As a specification of the basic element of the social process of culture, [Marxism] was a recovery of the wholeness of history” (1977: 19).
Williams, however, cites the Marxist failure to make cultural history material by instrumentalizing it, making it secondary and dependent on a basic material history. Culture is still separated from material social life, a dominant theme in idealist thought. In Williams’ opinion, “the full possibilities of the concept of culture as a constitutive social process, creating specific and different ‘ways of life,’…were for a long time missed,” superseded in practice by an “abstracting unilinear universalism.” This reduced intellectual life and the arts to a condition which allowed the idealist trend to break their necessary connections with society and history.
In a 1973 lecture entitled “Base and Superstructure in Marxist Cultural Theory,” Williams explains why orthodox Marxism failed to articulate a theory of culture as a “constitutive human process.” The failure lies in reducing the fundamental proposition, “social being determines consciousness,” into that of a uniform, static economic base prefiguring or controlling the content of superstructural activities. Williams proposes altering the positivist construal of base (fixed technological abstraction) into specific activities of humans in real social and economic relationships rife with variations and contradictions. He interprets “superstructure” to encompass a range of cultural practices not reflected, reproduced, or predicted by the base but determined in the sense of limits and pressures being exerted on it. The decisive reading of historical materialism that Williams suggests turns on construing the notion of productive forces and practices as vital and basic (not superstructural) because they produce human beings themselves, their history and life. Aside from producing commodities in capitalist economic relations, labor reproduces social relations and experiencing, interactive humans.
We are not replaying here the well-known debate between Lukacs and Brecht, and the response of E.P. Thompson to Althusser, but rather taking them as a point of departure. What is at issue, however, is not the materiality of cultural phenomena but the causal priority or efficiency of a singular determinant force in structuring the social formation. Terry Eagleton (1989) took Williams to task in substituting cultural analysis for ideology critique grounded on political economy. But this comment displaces the question of asymmetrical determination onto the old pre-Marxist dispute between ontological materialism and idealism. I think the reason why Williams does not decide which activity is more fundamentally determining than others in the production of human society is that he insists on reading “determination as not only the negative setting of limits,” but also the positive exertion of pressures by uneven, relatively autonomous practices, so as to avoid dichotomizing society and individual. He explains his kind of methological holism mindful of “militant particularism” (see Harvey 1996):
“Society” is then never only the “dead husk” which limits social and individual fulfillment. It is always also a constitutive process with very powerful pressures which are both expressed in political, economic, and cultural formations and, to take the full weight of “constitute,” are internalized and become “individual wills.” Determination of this whole kind–a complex and interrelated process of limits and pressures–is in the whole social process itself and nowhere else: not in an abstracted “mode of production” nor in an abstracted “psychology.”
Both objectivist/scientistic structuralism and psychoanalytic idealism are thus guilty of mystification. What needs recalling here is William’s original project of refusing what we would now call essentialisms–idealist, abstracting, and documentary–and his desire to ground cultural analysis in the complex and concrete wholeness of a lived community of experience. His concern is the dialectical relation between dynamic wholes and their constitutive experiential elements.
In positing the “real social process” of specific and interacting determinations as the causally efficient force, Williams may himself be culpable of a “circular notion of the social formation.” But if the question is not what causes everything else, but what in the end does a revolution want, then Williams’ answer is: liberation of energies for the fulfillment of repressed possibilities, realization of knowable communities. There is class intention and domination, to be sure, a phenomenon determined by the complex active process of hegemony. What essentially matters is the project of extrapolating possible worlds in thought and testing their feasible aspects in collective practice, an experiment in performing what Williams calls “the possibilities of common life” (1989c: 322).
To accomodate this new reading, Williams acknowledges the value of a concept like totality (first elaborated systematically by Georg Lukacs ). This model of a totality of social practices would register the complicated ways in which each practice combines and interacts with others. However, Williams rejects a notion of undifferentiated totality which affords no room for social intention or agency and thus concealing the class-hegemonic character of society. He writes: “For while it is true that any society is a complex whole of such practices, it is also true that any society has a specific organization, a specific structure, and that the principles of this organization and structure can be seen as directly related to certain social intentions, intentions by which we define the society, intentions which in all our experience have been the rule of a particular class” (1980: 36).
At this juncture, Williams welcomes the intervention of Gramsci (1971) and his idea of hegemony. This would correct the positivist reading of class determination of institutions, laws, social apparatuses, etc. Here is where Williams illuminates the role of the lived components of culture and selective tradition in his theory of cultural analysis as well as the peculiar but pivotal function of “experience,” his nuanced version of mediation.
Williams construes hegemony as “the whole body of practices and expectations; our assignments of energy, our ordinary understanding of the nature of man and of his world” (1980: 38). Hegemony signifies a “set of meanings and values which as they are experienced as practices appear as reciprocally confirming”; that is, the reality and validity of the tradition which selects meanings and values depend on their being experienced or incorporated into an effective, dominant culture. The concept of hegemony, for Williams, provides a more substantial and flexible tool for grasping the complex articulation of dominant and incorporated alternative meanings, values, attitudes, and so on, with the process of incorporation and transmission (education, social training in family, practical organizations of work, intellectual agencies, etc.). The use of the concept of hegemony instead of ideological manipulation allows the analyst to apprehend alternative and oppositional cultural forms–residual experiences based on previous social formations; emergent forms that can be detected without resort to subjectivist, metaphysical explanations.
What is the ethical-political consequence of this methodological standpoint? Williams gives us a clue: hegemony or the historically modulated strategy of incorporation reveals the extent to which any social formation reaches into the whole range of human practices and experiences. It indicates what is known and what is knowable, given the fact that any dominant order always consciously selects and organizes, thus excluding the full range of actual and possible human practices. Williams states: “No mode of production, and therefore no dominant society or order of society, and therefore no dominant culture, in reality exhausts the full range of human practice, human energy, human intention” (1980: 43).
From a broader perspective, one can appreciate how Williams’ emphasis on culture as process/practice is meant to resolve the crisis in modernist cultural theory. Because literature has been reduced in bourgeois hegemony to taste and sensibility, and then to an object of consumption (the reader of texts as isolated artifacts reduced to their components), cultural theory has stagnated in various schools of idealism or languished in the philosophical stupor of nominalism, relativism, and empiricist neopragmatism. The solution is to discover a method by which all art (including literature) can be viewed as practices of production. All art can be construed as notations to be interpreted in an active way, according to particular conventions that transcode forms of changing social organization and relations. This takes into account the production, perception and reception of art valued as activities inscribed in the general social process. We are then concerned not with the components of an artifact but with the conditions of a practice, the analysis not of the object and its constituent parts but of the reality of the practice and its conditions of execution, “the complex of extending active relationships” of various practices. Inquiry into conditions and principles of relations of practices would yield insight into intention and agency, as well as test the hypothesis of dominant, residual, and emergent tendencies in any given conjuncture. This summary encapsulates the central principles of Williams’ program of cultural studies.
Before summarizing Williams’ view on the uses of cultural theory and the future of cultural studies, I want to focus on the key axiom of “structure of feeling” that informs the strength (and possible weakness) of his peculiar brand of cultural materialism.
I have already remarked that Williams privileges culture as a complex of dynamic and multilayered relations within institutions and formations, “forming and formative processes” instead of formed and finished products. The reason why we mistake terms of analysis for terms of substance, Williams argues, is that we tend to bifurcate society as past and fixed from the personal as immediate feeling, consciousness, subjective experience. While the ideology of the aesthetic and the psychological myth of the unconscious that subsume the latter tempt us into metaphysics, the greater error, for Williams, is the reduction of the social to fixed and categorical generalities. Reification is the ever-present danger for cultural analysis. All consciousness is practical and social when it is lived actively, not just thought, in real relationships, not yet subsumed into official forms of consciousness and still in tension with the received interpretations.
At this juncture, Williams is meditating on the problem of how to capture and describe the historical change of style (in language, dress, manners, architecture)–“a particular quality of social experience and relationship, historically distinct from other particular qualities, which gives the sense of a generation or of a period” (1977: 131). Such specific qualitative changes cannot be reduced to epiphenomena of altered institutions, formations, and belief-systems or to secondary evidence of mutable social and economic relations between and within classes. At the same time, Williams urges that they be taken as social rather than personal experience in two senses: they are “changes of presence,” and while they are emergent, “they do not have to await definition, classification, or rationalization before they exert palpable pressures and set effective limits on experience and on action” (1977: 132). The rubric “structures of feeling” is introduced to define such changes. Why “feeling”?
The chief reason is that Williams wants to avoid the formalist concepts of “world-view” or “ideology” (employed by Marxists like Lucien Goldman) so that he can foreground “meanings and values as they are actively lived and felt.” The relation between such lived experience and the systematic beliefs are variable and changing (from formal assent to dissent to “more nuanced interaction between selected and interpreted beliefs and acted and justified experiences”). Williams now rejects the term “experience” because it has a connotation of pastness. He wants to register “characteristic elements of impulse, restraint and tone; specifically affective elements of consciousness and relationships: not feeling against thought, but thought as felt and feeling as thought: practical consciousness of a present kind, in a living and inter-relating continuity.” Permanences condense from the nexus of contingencies: “We are then defining these elements as a ‘structure’: as a set, with specific internal relations, at once interlocking and in tension. Yet we are also defining a social experience which is still in process, often indeed not yet recognized as social but taken to be private, idiosyncratic, and even isolating, but which in analysis (though rarely otherwise) has its emergent, connecting, and dominant characteristics, indeed its specific hierarchies” (1977: 132).
“Structure of feeling,” then, is a methodological hypothesis to carry out the function of cultural analysis in discerning “specific kinds of sociality” in the flux of feelings and affective rhythms, semantic figures, in art/literature. The purpose is to restore “social content in its full sense, that of a generative immediacy” (1977: 133). Williams points out that this mode is meant to define forms and conventions in art and literature “as inalienable elements of a social material process: not by derivation from other social forms and pre-forms, but as social formation of a specific kind which may in turn be seen as the articulation…of structures of feeling which as living processes are much more widely experienced. For structures of feeling can be defined as social experiences in solution, as distinct from other social semantic formations which have been precipitated and are more evidently and more immediately available” (1977: 133-34). Williams reminds us that this mode of analysis pertains more to emergent formations, not to dominant or residual ones, where the structure of feeling as an immanent tendency inhabits a structured formation (not yet semantically configured) of particular linkages, emphases and suppressions. Williams illustrates this transition from the early Victorian ideology (where the suffering due to poverty or illegitimay was viewed as social failure) to the contemporary structure of feeling in Dickens, Emily Bronte, and others, where the exposure and isolation constitute a general condition, with poverty or illegitimacy as connecting instances. Another example is the complex and variable relation of differentiated structures of feeling to diverse classes: “In England between 1660 and 1690, for example, two structures of feeling (among the defeated Puritans and in the restored Court) can be readily distinguished, though neither, in its literature and elsewhere, is reducible to the ideologies of these groups or to their formal (in fact complex) class relations” (1977: 134).
Williams instructs us to consider “structure of feeling” as a hypothesis of a mode of social formation distinguishable from other social and semantic formations “by its articulation of presence.” It substitutes for terms like “reflection” with its positivist aura or the Hegelianesque “mediation.” Aside from emphasizing language and signification as indissoluble elements of the material process (both production and reproduction of life), Williams tries to pin down “presence” in what he calls “epochal analysis.” Here the complex and variable social process of culture and their social definitions–traditions, institutions, and formations–are seen in their internal dynamic relations; hence the conceptual differentiation of internal phases or moments of the process as dominant, residual, and emergent. This theoretical refinement is crucial to understanding hegemonic power relations. Functionalist sociological notions like “mass” obscures and neutralizes specific class structures of institutions while “mass manipulation,” an operative strategy of capitalist advertising and politics, obfuscates and neutralizes “the complex interactions of control, selection, incorporation, and the phases of social consciousness which correspond to real social situations and relations.” In sum, Williams’ criticism of the academic “sociology of culture” lies in its empiricist and reductive nature as well as its resort to idealist, essentializing formulas.
Williams’ practice of cultural materialism avoids the reductionism of formalist aesthetics. It safeguards against the tendency of isolating effects, forms, economic conditions, and ideology as separate elements by always insisting on the “restoration of the whole social material process, and specifically of cultural production as social and material” (1977: 138). In terms of analytic method, Williams seeks to connect institutions with formations (conscious movements and trends crystallized in organic intellectuals), and formations with forms. Williams acknowledges the vital contribution of Lukacs, Goldmann, and the Frankfurt School (Adorno, Marcuse, Benjamin) in reminding us that “consciousness” cannot be reduced to a “sociology of knowledge,” for consciousness as it operates in cultural production includes also imagination, embodiment, performance, and their complex unity. While Williams appreciates the contribution of cultural semiotics and its valorization of specific sign-systems as it operates in film photograph, book, painting, television, etc., he also warns us not to dissociate the “social” from the “aesthetic”:
…we can also come to see that a sign-system is itself a specific structure of social relationships: “internally,” in that the signs depend on, were formed in, relationships; “externally,” in that the system depends on, is formed in, the institutions which activate it (and which are then at once cultural and social and economic institutions); integrally, in that a “sign-system,” properly understood, is at once a specific cultural technology and a specific form of practical consciousness: those apparently diverse elements which are in fact unified in the material social process (1977: 140).
Essentially, Williams echoes the argument of Bakhtin/Voloshinov against the objectivist linguistics of Saussure and, by extension, the whole poststructuralist trend (deconstruction, ludic semiotics, etc.).
In 1986, two years before he died, Williams reaffirmed this totalizing orientation, an insight that has served as a foundational motivation of Cultural Studies:
You cannot understand an intellectual or artistic project without also understanding its formation; that the relation between a project and a formation is always decisive; and that the emphasis of Cultural Studies is precisely that it engages with both, rather than specializing itself to one or the other. Indeed it is not concerned with a formation of which some project is an illustrative example, nor with a project which could be related to a formation understood as its context or its background. Project and formation in this sense are different ways of materializing–different ways, then, of describing–what is in fact a common disposition of energy and direction. This was, I think, the crucial theoretical invention that was made: the refusal to give priority to either the project or the formation–or, in older terms, the art or the society….These concepts [project, formation] are addressing not the relations between two separate entities, “art” and “society,” but processes which take these different material forms in social formations of a creative or a critical kind, or on the other hand the actual forms of artistic and intellectual work (1989: 151-52).
Williams then proceeds to describe how the paradigm of “cultural studies” arose from adult education (primarily women relating texts to their life-situations) in the late 19th century, then partly marginalized and defused in the 20th century. Whereas Leavis conceived of his task as educating a “critical minority” in a minority institution, Williams envisaged the vocation of cultural studies as indivisible from mass-popular education and the forging of a democratic culture. This explains why Williams criticizes the experiment of the Open University as one of bureaucratically superimposing technology on the social process of education. It contradicts the principle he values above all: “that intellectual questions arose when you drew up intellectual disciplines that form bodies of knowledge in contact with people’s life-situations and life-experiences” (1989: 156).
It is also in this context that Williams attacks structuralist theory (whether inspired by Saussure or Althusser) as idealist, one which considered the dominant order distributing roles and functions to individuals, in the process sacrificing the self-critique of one’s formation for a putative rigor. Given the division of labor in business society, the institutionalization of academic Cultural Studies has resurrected the old disciplinary boundaries. In this light, Williams calls for ecumenical border-crossing. He argues that one cannot understand soap operas or serials or detective fiction unless one grasps the historical constitution of these forms; for example, detective fiction goes back to the crime stories of the 19th century and the social-cultural milieu out of which that form exfoliated. There cannot be a history limited to labor or popular history simply because a class is constituted and defined by manifold relations that cannot be isolated as such. Williams recalls us to the inaugural problem faced by his project: “that people’s questions are not answered by the existing distribution of the educational curriculum.” A historic opportunity opens up for the future of Cultural Studies. Intervening in the education of youth for work-experience in industry, cultural-studies teachers can actualize that “dimension of human and social knowledge and critical possibility” found in the “interchange” between the intellectuals and ordinary citizens for whom cultural study is not a job but “a matter of their own intellectual interest, their own understanding of the pressures on them, pressures of every kind, from the most personal to the most broadly political” (1989: 162).
In another lecture entitled “The Uses of Cultural Theory,” Williams described the “road to Vitebsk.” This refers to the work of Bakhtin, Voloshinov, and Medvedev in the Soviet Union of the late twenties, especially their emphasis on grounding artistic specificity in the real and complex relationships of actual societies. Their intervention failed politically but registered a delayed effect in contemporary critical theory (see Hirschkop and Shepherd 1989). In the sixties, controversies over the nature of cultural formations, particularly of ongoing agency and practice, ushered a fetishism of the text which severed readers and critics “from any obligation to social connection or historical fact.” Forgotten was the imperative to distinguish between form and contextual formation. Not formal but formational analysis locates all experiences within the environments that generate them. This view of action as always material and contextual is one Williams attributes to naturalism, with its detailed recording and diagnostic attention to the lives of the great majority of people. Williams belabors the point that the new formalism–whether structuralist or poststructuralist, excluded from the work “the socially and historically specifiable agency of its making: an agency that has to include both content and intention, in relative degrees of determinacy, yet is only fully available as agency in both its internal (textual) and social and historical (in the full sense, formal) specificities.” The two brilliant demonstrations of the way this contextualized or historicized agency is informs the appraisal of literary texts are Williams’ The Country and the City and his monograph on George Orwell.
So we return to what Williams calls the key theoretical question of cultural study: “analysis of the specific relationships through which works are made and move,” “the exploration and specification of distinguishable cultural formations” (1989: 173, 174). Analysis of artistic forms together with social relations conduces to this end: “the steady discovery of genuine formations which are simultaneously artistic forms and social locations, with all the properly cultural evidence of identification and presentation, local stance and organization, intention and interrelation with others, moving as evidently in one direction–the actual works–as in the other: the specific response to the society” (1989: 175). This orientation proceeds through replacing the structuralist “language paradigm” with “a systematic and dynamic social language” (after Voloshinov) that evinces a wide, complex range of agencies and intentions, analytic and interpretive as well as creative and emancipatory agencies. Such agencies are drawn not necessarily from the object of analysis but from “our practical consciousness and our real and possible affiliations in actual and general relations with other people, known and unknown” (1989: 174).
At the end of his lecture on “The Uses of Cultural Theory,” Williams poses the central ethico-political question: “Can theory not help in its refusal of the rationalizations which sustain the negations [for example, a film showing the exploited as degraded], and in its determination to probe actual forms, actual structures of feeling, actually lived and desired relationships, beyond the easy labels of radicalism which even the dominant institutions now incorporate or impose?”
Finally, it is necessary to address here how the categories of gender and ethnicity interact with the class-conscious theory of community or common culture that Williams upholds as basic to the enterprise of cultural studies. Edward Said and Paul Gilroy, among others, have called attention to the reactionary and chauvinist potential of “common culture” mobilized in British politics (see Harvey 1996: 24). Williams’ application of the idea, however, is fundamentally socialist in its critique of bourgeois society with its inherent logic of inequality, exploitation, and domination. Apropos of the idea of community, Williams, at the conclusion of Culture and Society, rejects the idea of service and the hierarchy of individual merit as a perpetuation of the unjust status quo; instead, he endorses solidarity, active mutual responsibility, and the principle of egalitarian improvement. A culture in common is rooted in solidarity; because it can never be fully conscious of itself, any community is partly unknown and partly unrealized. Because its making is an exploration, it requires diversity and dissidence so necessary for “the advance in consciousness which is the common need.” What is fundamental in actualizing “the practical liberty of thought and expression” are “real alternative courses.” Culture/community is unplannable, but it coincides with the struggle for democracy against the dominative mode of industry, against traditional minority privileges. As Williams reiterates: “The struggle for democracy is a struggle for the recognition of equality of being, or it is nothing.” Commonality, in short, depends on the acknowledgment of human individuality and variation. This refutes allegations of neoconservative organicism, historicism, or doctrinaire nativism levied against Williams’ “culturalism” (for example, Viswanathan 1993).
In an interview a year before he died, Williams expressed his view of plurality and difference co-existing within community and common culture. He acknowledged that the proletariat’s experience of exploitation and resistance to it, while reproducing class consciousness and universal forms of solidarity, always occurs in a specific place and to a specific people, linked to local bonds of region, nation, or religion. Conscious that he belonged to a disadvantaged nationality, Williams credits the Welsh youth for their response to him: “Thank God someone has come out and asked who are we, what are we?” This ethnic experience of ambiguity and contradiction, underpinned by class difference, enables the Welsh to understand not only their situation but also the “once so self-assured, confident English” with their simple unitary identities redolent of an archaic period.
One might ask: What does this ethnic fragment (the Welsh) have to contribute to the larger narrative of mass struggles around the world for democracy and national liberation? Williams replies:
It’s not a matter of the simple patriotic answer: we’re Welsh, and still here. It’s the infinite resilience, even deviousness, with which people have managed to persist in profoundly unfavorable conditions, and the striking diversity of the beliefs in which they’ve expressed their autonomy. A sense of a value which has won its way through different kinds of oppression in different forms (1989: 322).
An elaboration of this attitude toward the “lived and formed social identities” of people of color (versus the reductive identities of mobile consumers) in the “Third World,” the countries of the South, is found in his book The Year 2000. As against the old nationalisms and the “reckless and uncontrollable global transnationalism” of corporate business and IMF/World Bank, Williams envisions a variable socialism based on actual social identities and effective self-governing societies.
As for question of gender, Williams in The Long Revolution underscored the importance of the “system of generation and nurture” in the hegemonic order. Williams admits that he had not fully wrestled with the “disabling notion of masculinity.” He states that in his book The English Novel from Dickens to Lawremce, he upheld the Bronte sisters as “representing interests and values marginalized by the male hegemony….The suppression of tenderness and emotional response, the willingness to admit what isn’t weakness–one’s feelings in and through another; all this is a repression not only of women’s experience but of something much more general” (1989: 319). However sensitive and profound the portrayal of women in his novels, Williams in his critical discourse, I think, subsumes the issues of gender and women’s difference within the larger perspective of a knowable community, his life-long obsession with place and historical formation, with “an ingrained and indestructible yet also changing embodiment of the possibilities of common life.” In any case, I would argue that Williams’ project of historicizing cultural studies, one which is revolutionary and utopian at its core, embodies a universal principle that comprehends unity and diversity, commonality and difference, without which all talk of social agency and human creativity in the curriculum of the human sciences would be mere empty rhetoric.
1 While Terry Eagleton (1976) charged that Williams ritualized public concepts to the point where they became private intentions, William Empson (1977) believed Williams messed up definitions and failed to solve social and political problems.
2 Williams notes the different usages in Europe: the anthropological one is current in German, Scandinavian and Slavonic language groups, while the senses of art and learning and process of human development prevail in Italian and French.
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